Kurt's Press Archive
February 14th, 2010

Is it possible for jazz to be too tasteful, too classy, too . . . perfect?

If it is, then it was.

A group calling itself Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour played politely for more than two hours to a near-capacity audience Thursday night at Berklee Performance Center in a show presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. It was a high-class affair, with the musicians wearing suits (and one dress), introducing tunes properly, and soloing in the right order. But the evening rarely shook the feeling of museum jazz - music that did little more than to remind of the heyday of jazz and bebop.

The collective features violinist Regina Carter, vocalist Kurt Elling, guitarist Russell Malone, and pianist Kenny Barron, backed by bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake. The four coleaders, regulars at the Monterey Jazz Festival, played together there last summer, and now they've taken their show on the road. Each of the four has built a career on a refined sense of swing, so maybe it's not in their DNA to go out on too many limbs. Yet I've heard each of them in concert before, with far more exciting results.

The thing is, there was nothing wrong with the music. But that was precisely what was wrong. Every note was carefully placed, every solo elegantly restrained. One never got the feeling that the musicians were taking risks. Jazz's foundation is the buildup and release of tension, but there weren't more than a few minutes of tension over these two-plus hours.

Elling, fresh from winning the best jazz vocal album Grammy 11 days earlier, did let himself go wild a couple of times, scatting up and down at least two octaves. But when he sang ballads - particularly "I Like the Sunrise," which married a Rumi poem to a Von Freeman solo on a Duke Ellington tune (whew) - it fell flat. Carter roused the crowd when she bowed contrapuntally on "When I Grow Too Old to Dream," and Blake unintentionally stole the show, churning furious polyrhythms on faster bebop numbers such as Barron's "New York Attitude."

Surprisingly, the evening's most enticing moment arrived when most of the band left the stage, leaving Barron and Carter to engage in a delicate piano-violin duet on a sweet rendition of "Georgia on My Mind." It was the concert's quietest five minutes, and it was rapturous.